What If My Team Members Are Unmotivated?

Since publishing my last article “Three Harmful Ideas About Leadership and Shifts You Can Make”, I received lots of messages from folks with further questions. Two themes emerged:

  1. Does your advice apply to team members who are unmotivated? If not, how should I go about managing them?
  2. How do I balance being a coach, collaborator and challenger with urgent demands to deliver?

Truth is, Google, Linkedin and Facebook, as premium employers, can hire all their staff for strict criterion such as high motivation, capacity and adaptability. I have worked in some places like that, where it is easier to make the shifts I suggested. Everything seems to flow.

On the other hand, I have also worked in places where motivation, capacity and attitudes were varying. This is the more common experience of the two. What do you do when you are a new manager, your boss is breathing down your neck for a deadline that was yesterday, and there are team members who simply cannot do the job “up to standard” or simply do not want to do it?

These are extremely complex and painful questions that many managers face when working with a team of varying motivation, capabilities and attitudes. Besides what my previous article advocated –  building a network of peers who can provide sounding boards and coaching – I would give three buckets of advice:

  1. Self management
  2. Boss management
  3. How to address “less motivated” team members

Very briefly on self- and boss-management: more later

On self-management: if you are a high performer, chances are verything seems “urgent” to you because your frame of reference is how fast it can be done. You need to stop and think about what is truly urgent, and whether the standards you are applying are truly necessarily (a silly example but some of you may identify: do I really need people to write in perfect English ALL the time, or is it just my preference??) Think hard, because cost is alienating your team by trying to deliver everything that 10 clones of yourself could do. More on self-management later, but I define this field as understanding your own triggers and tendencies that make your over-react, so that you can catch yourself before the damage is done. We all have these: I have many.

On boss management: If you are a high performer who recently became a new manager, perhaps you think your boss hired you to make his life easier.You want your boss to have the perception that everything is under control, so you try to settle as many things without knocking on his door. Pick your bosses carefully, and if you find a decent one, he/she will be more sympathetic than you think. Having honest conversations with your bosses about priorities and staff development should be inbuilt to your monthly routine. Sometimes, stepping out and having your boss work directly with your team members helps bring issues into focus. More on boss engagement here.

How to help “less-motivated” staff

Now for the hard part: how to help “less-motivated” staff, especially when your team is under pressure to perform. My friend Sandra Soon, who has had more than a decade of management experience, mentally sorts her team along two dimensions: capacity and alignment.

  • Capacity refers to the ability to do the job as the organization requires.
  • Alignment refers to the closeness between the individual’s motivations and the organization’s motivations.

The matrix below shapes her developmental strategies.

LOW ALIGNMENT Try to persuade them briefly and if that fails I exit them Work on exiting them immediately

My last article works better for the top half of the table. For the groups in the bottom half of the table, the challenging part is not making value judgments immediately; Sandra says: “I try to control my natural urge to be critical and make an effort to assume the best of people at the beginning — often lack of motivation stems from quite benign reasons eg they are distracted due to their many other interests, or they may not actually realise that they can do so much better.” In other words, don’t jump to the exit option too early.

My friend Pearlyn Chen further points out: “all of this is framed first by seeing each team member as individuals with their own potential and not just a management issue.”

Aaron Maniam, another respected leader with years of experience under his belt, provides elaboration on strategies you can take to help “less motivated” team members before considering exiting them. These are particularly pertinent in work contexts where exiting staff may be very difficult (another difference from Google/Linkedin/Facebook) – bureaucracies and family business are examples.

  1. Unearth external and seasonal factors.

    Aaron writes: “If people *seem* unmotivated, we need to talk to them and find out why. The answer could be something as simple as stuff going on at home, or a bad spell. Our job as leaders is then to help them through this bad patch or transient valley. This might involve some reallocation of work, having them work from home for a while so they can take care of kids, etc”.

  2. Unearth reasons for disengagement.

    “If the problem is not external, then perhaps they may not feel engaged by their work. Then our job is to help figure out what makes them tick – and not everyone understands themselves, sometimes, so having conversations about personality type, natural preferences, sources of energy and motivation, etc can be helpful. We might then be able to help them reframe their work to find stuff in it that is motivating. Eg not seeing writing minutes as a chore, but a way of learning the deep language of an organisation so that a person internalises its thinking process and hones his/her own analytics. Or helping a fresh graduate who enjoyed learning in uni, to see how there are also learning opporunities at work, even if those look like merely routine tasks.”

  3. Fix the structure and infrastructure of work.

    “I remember having introverts on my team who really found open offices difficult (this was an open office that wasn’t well designed and there weren’t enough quiet spaces for people to go to if they need to do extended thinking/writing). I just let them telecommute as much as they needed, and suddenly their productivity went through the roof. We had to do some norm setting in terms of how everyone on the team would stay connected if some were “off site”, and we did this collectively so everyone bought into the norms. Once the norms were set, they generally worked well.”

  4. Accept, and figure out a strategy towards unambitious team members.

    Aaron writes “I personally think it’s ok for people to make decisions that they don’t want to be particularly ambitious, and are content to work at a steady pace, go home at a regular hour on most days, etc. They of course need to be realistic and accept that this means they aren’t going to get promoted super soon or get an enormous performance bonus — but as long as they keep their expectations realistic, I think this is fine and a perfectly legitimate life decision. They might change it later on, or someone who was once a high performer might decide to reallocate their energies a bit after a few years, and good leaders/bosses need to know how to work around this. If the expectations are unrealistic, then of course a clear and firm conversation needs to be had.” Adding to this, Sandra points out that if you choose to retain an average performer, you will need to manage the perceptions of the rest of the team, who might feel they are shouldering an unfairly large share of the work. 

What is a good exit?

Sandra and Aaron also address what it means to exit team members well. Exiting team members must be done with a sense of responsibility towards both the individual and the organization. It is not about passing them to other teams as quickly as possible, but helping them find a better job fit: “for example, some people who are motivated by short-term, quantifiable targets will do better in sales jobs than in policy jobs”, Sandra writes.

Aaron shares that “Leaders have a duty to the overall system/organisation, not just their immediate teams, and can help facilitate linkups or meetings with other managers, who might be able to take the person on. I’ve seen instances where a lateral transfer has resulted in total transformation for a person.”

Personal thoughts 

I love their advice. Personally, in trying to balance the need for speed/quality versus the desire to nurture team members, I try to take a structured approach. I map out the mission-critical priorities and may assign high performers to those as a start. Especially as a new manager, it’s best not to fail on mission-critical priorities early on. However, it is easy to get into the cycle of only giving priority work to high performers. One must have a systematic way of reviewing work assignments, and ensuring that  “stretch” projects go to team members who initially demonstrate less potential or motivation. (For sanity, I do this at a time when I have bandwidth to provide coaching).

I also want to speak to those of us who are managers of managers: we need to be particularly mindful of what new managers are going through, and assure them that they have our trust as they strive to gain the trust of their team. That can make all the difference, as new managers often feel torn between their bosses and teams. I personally think it is wise to give a new manager a 30-90 day period where they function as a peer to their team, rather than a boss – learning the ropes of the job before they are asked to supervise it.


If you are working with less-motivated team members, this article provides some exercises that you can undertake. If you do this, and there is no fruit, in good faith move towards the exit option. Make a journal of the steps you took, for personal accountability, and also because some organizations require robust evidence when exiting a person.

I also want to end off by saying that you cannot please everyone – learning to face opposition graciously is a huge part of the leadership journey. You also need to take care of yourself and actively find support: bring in your boss to the process; hire a coach or ask a trusted advisor to walk with you for this season. Acknowledge your shortcomings and forgive yourself for them; it’s a painful part of growing up but it will eventually set you free (of trying to be impossibly invincible).

Reach out and I’d be happy to chat more too: the advice above may be too blunt for your situation; or you may feel overwhelmed by the complex emotions that arise if you are a new manager, and perceive yourself to be failing at it. This is a topic close to my heart as I have been through this phase and am deeply empathetic to those of you going through it!

image credit: http://lauraberginc.com/top-10-tips-to-stay-motivated-as-an-entrepreneur



One thought on “What If My Team Members Are Unmotivated?

  1. Pearlyn

    Just a comment on managing unmotivated team members – I’ve found Carol Dweck’s work on the “growth mindset” helpful as a check on managing both high performing and unmotivated team members. As a team leader, having the growth mindset would mean not assigning the work only to the high performing members in order to deliver, but helping the unmotivated members shift their mental models from one that is fixed to one that seeks growth so that they can contribute as well. This would probably come in useful particularly in managing a team member whose personal vision is aligned with the organisation’s but whose capacity falls short. Should add that all of this is framed first by seeing each team member as individuals with their own potential and not just a management issue.

    Liked by 1 person

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